TV shows lost to history: ‘FreakyLinks’ (2000-01) (Review)

Fox promotional photo

“FreakyLinks” (2000-01, Fox) was neither great nor terrible, but it has an important place in television history, which is why it’s a shame it hasn’t been preserved on DVD. (It has been rerun on Chiller, but not regularly enough to break out of the “lost to history” label.) The first faux-found-footage series in TV history, it exists entirely because of the success of the surprise 1999 movie hit “The Blair Witch Project.”

“FreakyLinks,” which unlike “Blair Witch” also spends time behind the hand-held camera, doesn’t work for me because of its tone. It emphasizes fun and humor to balance out the monsters that Derek Barnes (Ethan Embry) and his FreakyLinks web journalists investigate. (The Miami-based team is rounded out by Lisa Sheridan’s Chloe, the psychiatric consultant; Karim Prince’s Jason, the cameraman; and Lizette Carrion’s Lan, the researcher.)

To me, shows in this genre are automatically fun because of the subject matter, and humor often comes naturally – see “The X-Files,” for example. Because “FreakyLinks” aggressively aims for a light tone, it undercuts any chance of being scary – or at least moody, the TV-with-commercials equivalent of scary. This is a shame, because there are moments that have the potential to be creepy: for example, the shadow of a woman in a car just before it explodes (12, “Police Siren”). Other episodes touch on an interesting historical yarn – like the Croatoan myth in the pilot episode – but don’t fully exploit it.

The show was apparently rejiggered at the last minute to have this tone, and this might also explain the oddity of Dennis Christopher’s mysterious informant Vince being in the opening credits of all 13 episodes despite appearing in only a few.

Because it’s the first “found footage” show and because it’s an early portrayal of amateur internet journalism, it’s tempting to give “FreakyLinks” more of a place in history than it really had. The website – which Haxan, also the producer of “The Blair Witch Project,” makes available as an archived site — offers a synopsis of every episode, as if Derek did the write-ups. There are screen shots and some video clips, although this was before most folks’ internet speed was fast enough to stream video. But it wasn’t the first show to do this; Dawson’s Desktop (“Dawson’s Creek”) predates it by two years. When it aired, I felt like “FreakyLinks” missed its window of relevancy by about a year (although I did dutifully watch every episode).

Another problem is some episodes call to mind a similar hour of “The X-Files” — “Me and My Shadow” (8) borrows from “Soft Light,” “Lie Fast, Die Young” (11) from “Rush” — or another genre series. And we can predict where a story is going once it begins; there aren’t a lot of twists and turns. For example, if Derek’s team heads off to investigate a report of underground mole people, well, they’ll find underground mole people by episode’s end (3, “Edith Keeler Must Die”).

Still, there’s something enduring and endearing about “FreakyLinks,” which inexplicably rates a robust 8.2 on IMDB. The cast is likeable, and they are troupers. Embry in particular pours his heart into this role, oozing enthusiasm for exposing the truth that’s ignored by the mainstream media, like Mulder in his less cynical moments. There are attempts at character growth for the others – Jason’s family gets caught up in a haunting in “The Stone Room” (9), Chloe is nearly loses her psychiatry license in “Me and My Shadow” and “Sunrise at Sunset Streams” (10), and Derek and Lon have a brief mid-series romance. The mythology involving the unexplained death of Derek’s twin brother (1, “Fearsum,” and 6, “The Harbingers”) isn’t resolved, but that’s the fault of the cancellation.

A couple episodes are kinda fun, notably “The Final Word” (13), a prime-time newsmagazine parody by comic-book writer Mark Verheiden, and “Sunrise at Sunset Streams,” featuring entertaining older actors in a retirement community setting. Those that hint at a strong message, such as the police-brutality commentary “Police Siren,” are undercut by flippancy.

The game of “spot the actor,” as with many older TV shows, is fun. Two of my favorites are “UnReal’s” Constance Zimmer as a sexpot in “The Stone Room” and Eric Balfour – who seemingly appeared in every genre show from 1997 to 2007 — making his dutiful appearance in “Live Fast, Die Young.”

Despite the “low budget” aesthetic, the special effects are solid (if not ambitious). For example, the bug creature in “The Final Word” and the shadow-jumping creature in “Me and My Shadow” look good. And “FreakyLinks” ranks ahead of “Blair Witch” in my book, because it at least shows the monster by episode’s end.

All things considered, though, I suspect the continuing love for “FreakyLinks” from its small fanbase is as much for what the show could have been as for what it actually was.

(This blog post is part of a series about great short-lived TV shows that haven’t been released on DVD or digital or streaming services, and are rarely – if ever — shown in syndication. While some of these shows can be found somewhere on the Internet, fans of great TV want to see them get a proper release. If you’re one of those fans, your best bets are to vote for the show at TVonDVD.com or to request information from Amazon.com in the event the show gets released. This will let the copyright holder know of your interest. Find an index of my TV reviews here.)